Office in the Sky

The past few years have seen some encouraging signs from Microsoft. For instance, they no longer propagate transparent and self-serving falsehoods about Linux at every opportunity. However, recent events indicate that maybe the new Microsoft might be all too much like the old Microsoft.

Dear Reader,

Is Microsoft up to its old tricks again?

The past few years have seen some encouraging signs from Microsoft. For instance, they no longer propagate transparent and self-serving falsehoods about Linux at every opportunity. However, recent events indicate that maybe the new Microsoft might be all too much like the old Microsoft.

EU investigators are currently asking around about Microsoft’s cloud contracts [1]: in particular, a change to the licensing that occurred back in 2019. The change relates to how the company bills for products like its office productivity suite, which is now bundled as part of the Microsoft 365 package. As far as I understand it, companies pay for a license to use the software on their network, but if they move some of these instances to the cloud, there is an extra charge. In theory, this extra charge applies to all cloud platforms, including Microsoft’s own Azure cloud, but in practice, Azure customers are allegedly getting a special discount that offsets much of this extra fee.

If that sounds sneaky, it is. In fact, the regulators are wondering if it is the kind of sneaky that reaches the level of monopolistic practices. In its most extreme form, a monopoly works by confining the customer to a single choice. Another form of monopoly, which is slightly less exclusionary but still very powerful, operates by imposing a penalty on the customer who chooses to stray from monopoly control. Then there is a third kind of monopoly that isn’t really any kind of monopoly at all – I’m not sure what to call it, except perhaps an imaginary monopoly. In this scenario, a vendor asserts control by projecting a false reality that makes customers believe they have no choice even when they actually do.

Microsoft 365 is somewhere between a real monopoly and an imaginary monopoly. Yes, Microsoft does seem to be using its position in the office software market to upload office suite customers to the Microsoft cloud. But why are customers so willing to go along with it? If they want to switch to a different cloud and Microsoft 365 is holding them back, why don’t they just give up Microsoft 365?

Companies that worry about acclimating their users to a new productivity suite should stop worrying – seriously, is it really so difficult to use a different word processor or spreadsheet once you have learned to use one. Perhaps more of a problem are the macros written for Microsoft Office that will have to be rewritten for a different API. First of all, this situation doesn’t apply to all customers, so any company that is intimidated about switching for macro compatibility reasons should make an honest assessment about how much their company actually depends on Office macros. Secondly, even if your company does use a lot of legacy Office macros, it is worth considering whether this might be a good time to bite the bullet and replace them with something more portable, now that they are being used as a tether to limit customer choice.

Google Docs certainly bills itself as a full replacement for Microsoft’s productivity tools. Amazon provides the infrastructure necessary for a collaboration environment, although their WorkDocs product is currently a bit too focused on supporting Microsoft Office. But Amazon certainly has the resources to implement their own complete solution, and you can bet they are working on it now, given the uncertainty with Microsoft.

You might be wondering why hyper-cloud users don’t just switch to LibreOffice. The free LibreOffice suite was instrumental in breaking the Microsoft Office monopoly on the desktop. Couldn’t they do the same in the cloud? Someday, perhaps, but there is work to be done.

It appears that The Document Foundation (TDF), maintainer of LibreOffice, isn’t really interested in building a universal cloud-based solution. TDF does provide a browser-based, network-ready version of LibreOffice, but they consciously avoid the complexity of integrating cloud storage, authentication, and other technologies needed for a drop-in cloud implementation. A message on the TDF website states, “The Document Foundation is not planning to develop and fund a cloud solution similar to existing products from Google and Microsoft, because this would require selection and integration of the other technologies needed for deployment. This would be a significant growth of scope and not in line with the original mission of the project. The task is therefore left to large deployers, ISPs and providers of open source cloud solutions, and several options are already available on the market.” [2]

As the note states, online services based on LibreOffice do exist, but these solutions tend to be from single vendors who are looking to build their own businesses and are not acting on behalf of the whole community. TDF adds, “TDF would welcome provision of a public LibreOffice Online offering by another charity.”

Microsoft’s recent return to antitrust tactics could be a wake up call for TDF or “another charity” to get working on a free and universal cloud-based productivity solution that will challenge Microsoft’s imaginary monopoly in office software.

Editor in Chief, Joe Casad

Posted by Contributor